News / Middle East

Syria’s Kurds Play Political Odds between Assad, Erdogan

An estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing poverty and civil war have sought refuge in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These refugees crossed the border at Peshkhabour check point, 260 miles from Baghdad, on August 20, 2013.
An estimated 200,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing poverty and civil war have sought refuge in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These refugees crossed the border at Peshkhabour check point, 260 miles from Baghdad, on August 20, 2013.
David Arnold
Civil war may have devastated much of Syria over the past two-and-a-half years, but one part of the country – its northeastern Kurdish region – has been relatively unscathed.
 
Last month, however, a flood of nearly 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees into the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq raised new fears that Syria’s Kurds are becoming increasingly embroiled in the Middle East’s most violent conflict.  
 
The refugees were fleeing attacks by jihadist groups that attacked Kurdish communities along the Turkish border. Militant groups such as al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, are fighting to control border areas near Turkey because they control vital supply routes.
 
The fighting was also sparked in part by Syrian Kurds trying to form an interim government in the area -- complete with a constitution and a parliament.  The plans unveiled in mid-July by the Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, led to fighting between PYD-affiliated militias, known as the YPG, and the largest Syrian opposition armed group, the Syrian Free Army. The YPG also fought with jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.  
 
Turkey takes an interest
 
Now, as Syria’s Kurds are increasingly coming into conflict with the Syrian opposition, they are being courted by regional players like Turkey. As Syria’s Kurds fled by the tens of thousands into northern Iraq, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, invited PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, to Istanbul to discuss Turkey’s faltering efforts to put a peaceful end to its own 29-year Kurdish revolt. The move was seen as a surprise because the PYD is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turks consider a terrorist organization.
 
Experts said Muslim and Davutoglu appeared to be negotiating an understanding that will aid Turkey’s pursuit of peace in its eastern Anatolia region. Since Damascus pulled most of its troops from the region last year to bolster efforts to defeat Syria’s rebels elsewhere, PYD militia units have guarded Syria’s pipelines and until recently suppressed anti-Assad protests.
 
“The PYD and Assad work together to secure the oil pipe lines for the regime and to stop anti-regime demonstrations,” said Eva Savelsberg, director of the KurdWatch human right blog and president of the Berlin-based European Center for Kurdish Studies.

But the direction the PYD takes in the name of Syria’s Kurds ultimately depends on their own pursuit of power and on the leadership of Kurdish militants across the border in Turkey, say observers of Kurdish regional affairs.
 
“It’s controlled by the PKK,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs analyst writing for Istanbul’s Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, referring to the PYD.
 
Power resides in the militias

Much of the strength of this emerging Kurdish political power comes from the YPG militias who control three enclaves – Afrin, Ayn al-Arab and Hasakah province - along Syria’s northern borders. These enclaves enable them to recruit and levy taxes on oil shipments crossing the Syrian border, where they continue to clash with Jabhat al-Nursa units for nearby border crossings. 
 
The PYD also gained strength from the arrival of PKK cadres who left Turkey in apparent compliance with Turkey’s peace demands.
 
“In the last four weeks a lot of PKK cadres came to Syria,” said Savelsberg. “What the YPG is doing is getting more weapons and more power, possibly to confront Jabhat al-Nusra.”
 
The PYD claims it does not side with the Assad regime or his political opposition. They call it the “third way”, said van Wilgenburg.  “But their rivals accuse them of being close to the regime.”
 
Kurdish politics in Syria cross many borders. Most parties have joined one of four blocks with links to Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq or the PKK in Turkey. Most recently, parties within the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an opposition group to the YPG, have joined with the Istanbul-based exiles of the Syrian National Coalition.  
 
“The PYD is not happy with that,” said van Wilgenburg, “They see it as a coup against their autonomy plan.”
 
“It’s quite complicated,” he said.
 
In a bid to ease tensions the KNC and the YPG recently formed the Kurdish Supreme Committee and both groups are supposed to jointly administer areas under Syrian Kurdish control until elections can be held.  But observers say tensions remain between the two groups. 
 
Who will be PYD's partner?

“I think it’s clear who the bad guys are,” said Savelsberg. “That’s clearly the PKK and the PYD.”
 
“Hardly anyone is ever critical of the PYD,” said Savelsberg. Kurds do not object to YPG’s repressive tactics because some are afraid, she said. Others are silent because “a lot of Kurds have the opinion that being persecuted by Kurds is better than being persecuted by Arabs.”
 
The YPG militias have earned a reputation for destroying community centers, civil society offices and headquarters of the political opposition in the region, said Savelsberg. In June armed YPG forces attacked a street demonstration in Amuda, killing six activists and wounding dozens more, drawing international protest.
 
“The PYD wants people to forget what happened in Amuda, where they kidnapped and killed a lot of activists and lost a lot of sympathy,” said Savelsberg. “They needed to put the focus on someone else and who is the better enemy than Islamists.”
 
The PYD is loyal to Assad “only as long as it is useful for them,” said Savelsberg. “It’s not so much they are supporting the regime. They now want to consolidate their own power. They choose their partners for military strength."

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs